The holiday horror film season is over, though the forgettable blockbusters – let’s not mention their titles – are still dragging their way like decaying corpses across cinema screens. Still, this season has been different: for the first time in memory, there has been a cluster of films that I’ve actually wanted to see. This is pretty exciting, really, because I like going to the cinema. I like the big screen and sound, the fact I’m shut off from the world. Still, it’s remarkable how often I leave the movie theatre disappointed, cursing, in particular, the scriptwriting. Far too often spectacle replaces story. Thankfully, the first two movies I saw, The Fighter and Black Swan, did not disappoint. Neither are classics, but they pull their weight, and, most importantly, are about something.
The Fighter (warning: spoilers!) tells the story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an Irish-American from Lowell in Massachusetts. Trained by his crack-addict brother Ricky (Christian Bale), and managed by his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), Micky is a ‘stepping stone’ on the boxing circuit. Other boxers use him as a notch on their belt, a step towards a chance to fight better boxers. This is not helped by his family’s willingness to accept offers of unfair fights.
For the first three quarters of its running time, The Fighter is a careful examination of the dynamics of a dysfunctional working-class family, as seen through the lens of a boxer. While the film stays on this ground, it is a sound piece of filmmaking. As the unpredictable Ricky, Bale shambles charismatically, and ambiguously, through the film. Bale leaves us never quite sure whether to sympathise with or despise Ricky, though to the people of Lowell, he’s clearly a lovable larrikin. Wahlberg’s Micky is altogether quieter – a simple, honest type. If these characters are hardly original, they are drawn with more than sufficient insight. The female characters are given less room to move. Micky’s girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) is hardheaded and feisty bartender, while his harridan mother, manipulative and self-deluded. Still, his sisters get the shortest, most stereotypical, shrift. Together they’re a chorus of bitching, gum-chewing, big-haired, working-class women.
The social world of the The Fighter is not often seen in American films. The vast flood of Hollywood movies and two-dimensional television has a tendency to conjure an America that is little more than imagination. It is easy to forget how much of the country resembles the world of The Fighter.
Having set up the family tensions – will Micky ditch Ricky and his mother to improve his career, will Charlene stick around despite the family dramas? – The Fighter’s last act makes a fatal turn to the sporting movie. All the previous conflicts are replaced by a single, less interesting one: will Micky win the Welterweight?
Indeed, that The Fighter’s closest cousins are The Wrestler, Million Dollar Baby and the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, indicates to us that there’s something very familiar about the narrative of a character from a rough neighborhood making good. Indeed, there may be something conservative about celebrating a narrative that the only way a working-class character can make it is through by being an athlete (as Bell Hooks’ has pointed out in relation to African-Americans in Hoop Dreams). We are asked to celebrate Micky’s ascent, rather than examine it. In this sense, The Fighter is the inverse of a film like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which, among other things, critiques the commercialization of the wrestling scene in America.
Aronofsky’s recent film, the engrossing Black Swan, revisits the same themes as his earlier The Wrestler, and indeed Requiem For a Dream: obsessive characters who are on a path of self-destruction.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a perfectionist ballet dancer in New York who scores the lead part in Swan Lake. But from early in the piece, doubts are cast about whether Nina will be able to handle the pressure of such a part, and her world slowly starts to unravel. Strange sores emerge on her shoulders where wings might grow; she sees her own double several times. No doubt Portman’s performance is excellent as the insecure Nina, perpetually on the brink of tears, painfully self-conscious and insecure, awkward and sexually repressed – frigid as the demanding director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) says. Perhaps it’s the psychosexual aspects of the story – Nina’s movement from frigid and repressed to seductive killer – that are most questionable.
Anyone familiar with the tropes of gothic horror will find little new here, even if they are handled with surety. The blood and self-mutilation, Nina’s opposite appearing in dark corridors (echoing Jung’s notion of the shadow), the incessant and well-worn technique of filming Nina’s fractured image in a mirror, the breakdown of the line between reality and fantasy, Nina’s use of former (perfect) dancer Beth’s (Winona Ryder) personal effects in an attempt to somehow embody her – all of these are well-worn tracks in horror and thriller movies.
The characters are equally recognizable: Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is controlling and obsessive, while the slightly too friendly fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), undermines Nina. Adding to the clichés is the ‘brilliant’ but demanding male director who pushes Nina to the brink, at times coming on to her, at other times scathing. Black Swan’s problem is not that such characters don’t exist, but rather that the film has no critique of them. Instead, it accepts the terms of all of these characters. Each is an unexamined stereotype, without much depth.
We know, from early on, that this will not end well. This is a narrative that must end in psychic disintegration (A related film that comes to mind is Betty Blue). There will be no redemption. The terms of the narrative are already set – there is no internal critique of the dance world, in the way that The Wrestler so successfully critiqued the wrestling world. Whereas The Wrestler implied a political analysis, Black Swan is a narrow psychological investigation.
Black Swan’s narrative arc is in a sense an inverted version of The Fighter’s, and in many ways equally conservative. If The Fighter naturalises the path of the boxer, Black Swan romanticises the descent of a female artist to madness. It revels in Nina’s breakdown, inviting us into a voyeuristic relationship with it (partly though the cinematography which lingers lovingly on Portman’s delicate face, her sculpted figure; the finest moments of filmmaking are the dancing scenes). In the end, for Aronofsky, there’s something beautiful about Nina’s final descent. From the shadow comes perfection and creativity, indeed, for a female artist to achieve perfection, they must be destroyed.